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Playback: Denis Villeneuve on ‘Arrival,’ ‘Dune’ and the ‘Risk’ of ‘Blade Runner’

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

On today’s show, Jenelle Riley and I recount Monday’s Oscar Nominees Luncheon, where all of this year’s Academy Award hopefuls turned out to share a bite and take the annual class photo. We also branch out a bit, discussing new releases like “The LEGO Batman Movie” and “John Wick: Chapter Two,” as well as the week’s big news: Jack Nicholson is back in the saddle with a remake of one of the year’s most acclaimed foreign films, “Toni Erdmann.”

Later on (20:20) I’m talking to director Denis Villeneuve, who landed an Oscar nomination for his work on the alien invasion psychodrama “Arrival.” He’s in somewhat “parallel worlds” at the moment though, he admits, because he’s been in the thick of principal photography and now post-production on “Blade Runner 2049” throughout much of “Arrival’s” run. But he takes the Oscar nomination quite seriously and as a cue that he needs to continue to earn it going forward.

Listen to this week’s episode of “Playback” below. New episodes air every Thursday.

Click here for more episodes of “Playback.”

The interesting thing about Villeneuve as of late, particularly with his project selection in the wake of the more plot-driven “Prisoners,” is that he seems to be drawn to scripts — Enemy,” “Sicario,” “Arrival” — that allow a lot of room for atmosphere and for him to put his fingerprint on the thing.

“I choose screenplays that have strong potential to create strong cinematic moments,” Villeneuve says. “I like when it’s a bit raw and I have space to evolve as a filmmaker. I always say to the screenwriter that I will be his best friend, that I will do everything to protect his poetry, and at the same time I will be his worst enemy because I will be a traitor. I will deform scenes and cut dialogue — I will be a bit of a barbaric asshole, because I need to invade the screenplay.”

In the midst of an on-going partnership with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve went a different route this time due to scheduling. He tapped up-and-comer Bradford Young (“Selma”) for “Arrival,” and it was an exciting departure for the director.

“I found myself as an orphan without a cinematographer,” Villeneuve says. “So I started to look at different reels and I said to myself, not being able to work with Roger, it’s an opportunity to be in total different waters, to inspire myself and challenge myself. I saw ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ and ‘A Most Violent Year,’ and I was very impressed by the way [Young] was using natural light and the personality he was able to develop. I fell in love with the guy, his humility, the way he was listening. I was also very excited by the idea of working with someone who had never done sci-fi before, because we were approaching the movie not as a sci-fi movie, but as an intimate drama.”

Finally, Villeneuve is finishing up “Blade Runner 2049,” which he calls the “most risky” project of his life and one that finds him reprising a legendary piece of cinema. Regarding Deakins, Villeneuve says he thinks it may be the 13-time Oscar nominee’s best work yet, which is clearly quite the statement. He’s reticent to say too much but when asked about the use of practical effects versus CGI, he really digs in.

“I’m very old school,” Villeneuve says. “I wish I had the chance to do my ‘Aliens’ as animatronics. That was my dream at the beginning [of ‘Arrival’] with Bradford. We were dreaming to put them in a gigantic aquarium with gigantic beasts that would be moved by puppeteers, but sadly it would have been too expensive. For ‘Blade Runner,’ we tried our best to do as much as possible in-camera, building everything. And Roger was insanely impressive in how he was able to create landscape with tricks. For me it was beautiful. I think I can count on one hand how many times I saw a green screen in all of those months of shooting. There will be CG enhancements of course, but as much as possible it was in-camera.”

Hear more about that and more, including Villeneuve’s feelings on Amy Adams missing out on an Oscar nomination and his childhood dream of adapting “Dune” into a film, via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

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